You have to free up your body in order to free up your sound on the violin.
That was the main message that I took away from a master class by Donald Weilerstein on Tuesday that kicked off the ninth biennial Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.
Weilerstein is the former first violinist with the Cleveland Quartet who is currently a faculty member at both The Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory. Much of his advice reminded me of the kinds of things yoga teachers say to encourage students into those impossible-seeming pretzel poses: "Send the energy out of your fingertips," or "Root your feet into the ground..." They sound physically impossible and even ridiculous, and yet when attempting such unusual physical feats, those funny phrases sometimes send just the right message to get you there.
Likewise, playing the violin requires certain physical acrobatics that need to come from a place of calm, strength and flexibility. Weilerstein used phrases such as "sing through your spine" and "feel the music breathing through you" to convey ideas about bringing the whole body into every aspect of playing.
First up was Marley Erickson, of Seattle, who played the first movement of the William Walton Violin Concerto with a sound that ranged from rich and beautiful with a nice wide vibrato, down to a near-whisper, sans vibrato. She held her violin with stability and had really mastered this wide-ranging and complicated movement.
"You have a beautiful, inside-out quality to your playing," Weilerstein told her after her performance. He asked her where she felt the musical impulse in her body, and she said that for her, it was really through the whole body.
Weilerstein suggested that it was important to feel the music from the lower stomach or core, "you need to have thrust with that," he said. He also asked where, in the hall, she was listening for the sound.
"When you breath in, you want to feel like a singer," he said. "You imagine the room and sing what you are playing."
He also wanted her arm movement to come from a feeling like a pendulum, or like swimming the backstroke. He had her put down her violin and wind both arms backwards, to get that feeling of "scooping," in order to translate it to the bow arm.
"It's all to get a larger feeling," he explained. For the bow, that means "dipping" into the string.
Then he had her trying doing scales, keeping in mind that larger motion and thinking about where to send the sound. "Almost beam it out into the room," he said. "Sing, as though you are trying to push it into the floor -- feel the music breathing through you."
He also wanted her to work on sending out the sound, even when the music has less volume. What else carries the sound into the hall? "It's the high overtones in the sound," he said. "Under the ear, it sounds too edgy," but farther away, "it's like a high-pitched ring in the sound. It's like a singer, projecting the simmer in the sound."
To access those high overtones, he had her play ponticello. Done to the extreme, this effect has an almost double-note quality. From there, he had her back off, playing it "half ponticello" and then "a third ponticello," which was just about right for projecting a kind of sheen without the rich tone. "That way you can play softly and fill the room with your sound," he said.
Next, Maya Anjali Buchanan of South Dakota played the first movement of the Violin Concerto by Erich Korngold -- a soaring, larger-than-life piece that is also quite a technical feat.
"It's very strong, brilliant playing," Weilerstein told her.
He asked what moved her most in the music, and she said the tone and harmony.
"When one plays, in a sense, one becomes the music," Weilerstein said. He suggested practicing scales -- not just for intonation, but for expression.
He had her play a D major scale, for expression. "Sing the most glorious, ecstatic D major scale."
A lot of this comes from the bow, he said, and specifically, the way you hold the bow. Consider the way you hold someone's hand: you can convey a certain feeling in the way you do so. Likewise, you can convey a feeling in the way you hold the bow. It's important to tap into the vibrations of the bow. The bow engages the string with a series of little "hooks" in its hairs -- but that also causes a certain vibration in the stick, in the tip and frog. Feel that vibration, and pull from it, he said.
Also, your lefthand fingertips can feel the vibration of the strings, especially if you play on the left side of the strings. "I can feel the buzzing into my fingertip as I spin it with the teeth of the hair."
They tried a G major scale, all down-bows, "spinning" each note. "Enjoy the vibration," he said.
Then they tried the opening of the Korngold and talked about how the harmonies pull against each other, how it's possible to feel those vibrations in your hand.
Next, Takumi Taguchi of Shoreline, Wash. played the Adagio and Fugue from Bach's Sonata No. 1 in G minor -- an impressive performance for its impeccable intonation, good pacing and control. The fugue was particularly captivating -- thoughtfully planned and well-shaped, with consistently clean string crossings.
Weilerstein spoke to Takumi about connecting the left-hand fingers more with the arm, and also feeling more spring in the left fingers. First, he wanted to show Takumi how to locate those tendons: when you wiggle your left fingers, you can feel the tendons at the base of the left elbow.
"Imagine you are singing into those tendons," Weilerstein said. And when it came to the fingers themselves, "don't really hold the left-hand fingers down, but kind of bounce them," he said. "I feel more like I'm lifting my fingers than pushing them down," Weilerstein said. "It's almost like thinking of double notes, because you are thinking of the releases."
"Lead through your arm and bounce with your fingers," he said. And not just your arm, but all the way into your back. "You have to sing through your back to get the arm to be free," Weilerstein said.
For the fugue, Weilerstein suggested thinking of the left hand as being very large, then you release your knuckles from the tendons. Said another way, think in terms of the larger gesture, then release the fingers from there.
The final piece we heard was the first movement of the Brahms Concerto, played with accuracy, excellent intonation and some tension by Gregory Lewis of Canada. Weilerstein wanted to work on Gregory's shifts, asking him to breathe more when shifting, to "breathe into your spine," he said. He wanted him to see the shift in his mind, then breathe.
It occurred to me that, with nearly all of the exercises he was suggesting for connecting the body to playing, relaxation is an important side-effect. Isolated and disconnected, muscles tend to be tense and less effective; whereas larger, incorporated motion has "flow" to it.
Weilerstein suggested sliding on the inner part of the finger, shifting "slow to fast." He also admonished: no jumping; slide instead. "I shift between notes, I never jump."
"Sing into your back, from the front," Weilerstein said, sounding more and more like a yogi. But it actually seemed most effective with Lewis, who truly loosened up.
"It sounds more expressive because that's how shifting is supposed to feel," Weilerstein said.
And if you did not get the message, here it is one last time:
"It's important to start with singing through your body."
* * *
I will leave you with a few of my favorite photos from the last day in New York!
Here's a statue that is new since the last time I was in New York: "Hippo Ballerina," by Danish artist Bjørn Okholm Skaarup.
When in New York, it's always great to say hello to violinist Philippe Quint!
Fellow Symposium participants!
Lincoln Center, at dusk.
Everywhere, there are dancers, especially right next to the Met. I caught one striking a pose next to the fountain at Lincoln Center Plaza.
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June 4, 2017 at 03:13 PM · Laurie: Your description of Don W's teaching style are spot-on to what I recall from his stay at the Univ of Buffalo with the Cleveland Quartet. His ethereal approach to music is all based on his personal level of technique wherein "the notes" present no difficulty, and he strives for a mystic creativity and divine quality to performance...great article.